Booking the Net

eBooks are kind of like the garage bands, but without the girls and guitars. But wait a while

It is said there is a murderer in each of us. And a book (not necessarily a murder mystery). But very few of us get around to doing one or the other, because the odds are high. Actually, that’s true only for writing. Murder is easy, and could land you a book deal (you don’t have to know how to write).

Looking to publish his first book, Delhi-based businessman Aditya Berlia, 28, found few takers. No one wanted to bring out a novel about a leather-clad, vampire hunting heroine, in the Lisbeth Salander mould. “They were just not interested,” says Berlia. “They thought I was some foreign returned, rich kid looking to indulge a hobby’’.

Undeterred, Berlia decided to publish Tantra himself, and went virtual to publicise it. For the launch he chose Google Hangout, skipping the customary wine and cheese affair. “We figured out our target audience and tailor-made the promos. One of our promos on Facebook said, `All men are boys until they get married’, and was aimed at men between 20 -26 years. There was a massive jump in the number of people who wanted to know what this post was about’’

 The FB page, Adi claims, had 4,000 likes within the week; the book trailer on You Tube — 180,000 hits in ten days. “The struggle was to get the first 500 people to like us’’, he adds. “Once you hit that, their friends check it out and the word spreads. This is where the Net pushes frontiers”.

One, a growing number of writers in India is increasingly starting to explore. To call out a recent few: Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi, Devdutt Patnaik and Ashok Banker, all are among those whose books were promoted on the Net through trailers.

“The net has reduced entry barriers,” says Tripathi, 38, whose first novel “The Immortals of Meluha” was rejected by publishers. The former banker decided to put his business degree to use online. “We felt we could convey the book’s feel through a trailer. We did not have the money to take it to cinema halls, so we took it to the internet. It’s no longer the case that you need a certain amount of money or the right connections to get published. You can speak your voice on the Net.”

Now, thanks to the profusion of tablets and smart phones flooding the Indian market, those voices are more likely to get heard.  A potential the Rs.10, 000-crore Indian publishing industry has woken up to as well. Publishing houses like Penguin India, Rupa Books and Zubaan Books are digitizing content to explore newer areas that today’s consumers are zoning into.

“We have 510 titles on sale, and we are adding approximately 50 titles a month,” says Ananth Padmanabhan, Vice-President Sales, Penguin India. “This includes all new titles published in 2013, simultaneously along with their print edition.”  The revenues though are negligible so far. “We are currently spending a lot of energy on having all our titles available as e-books, and creating new e products.”

The problem, Padmanabhan says lies in the lack of adequate Indian retailers. Penguin currently retails through Flipkart.com, which entered the e-book market last year by launching 100,000 titles through its digital store Flyte. Google Books and Amazon offer Penguin e-lists to Indian readers as well. “One of the primary concerns with other Indian retailers is the lack of strategy and marketing, and the absence of foolproof security mechanisms’’, he says.

While publishing houses are testing the waters, self-publishing sites have got a shot in the arm after the entry of e-books. “We mostly deal with new content and individual authors who are finding their audience online”, says Jaya Jha, co-founder of Pothi.com, a self-publishing platform. “Offering digital content makes total sense for them. Sometimes e-books are offered for free by those looking to market something else, or want to spread their ideas. Print would make such experiments costly. Since nowadays books are in any case written on the computer, there is no additional cost associated with digitisation’’.

Many believe this could see new and hopefully talented voices emerging online. “In our country we need the opening up that e-books offer if one is looking to make more discoveries in the world of literature,” says Amit Chaudhari, whose latest book “Calcutta: Two Years in the City”, has been brought out in print and e-book format.

“Right now, it is sportsmen and chefs who are publishing the most anyway. Because costs are lower, it will allow fresher and more interesting voices to publish’’. 

“It is exciting to see that writing is expanding across so many genres, chick lit, lad-lit, etc.’’, adds literary critic Sunil Sethi. “These IIM grads-turned-novelists are applying those very same models and techniques they learned in business school to writing or publishing to reach audiences. They are unlikely to produce a literary masterpiece but they are ratcheting up the numbers and that is heartening”.

 Will this spell a rise in readership? In the US, e-books now account for nearly 23% of the publishers’ total revenue, according to the latest report of the Association of American publishers .Back home, the prognosis is not so bright. “It’s a myth that India has a huge market for books, print or digital”, says Padmanabhan.

 “It is a discerning audience that buys books on a regular basis, who are a small number, and within them there is a shift between formats”, Jha agrees. “In the US, the reading culture was already much stronger than it is in India. E-books took it further by offering convenience. The Indian publishing industry has to generate demand in the first place. Until then, e-books will have to play in the same small market as physical books. By themselves, they will not make non-readers read’’.

 We no longer make the kind of long-term commitment required for a relationship with War And Peace, or display the rigour for Possession. On the frontiers of the World Wide Wilderness, we’re always ridin’ the bitstream, imbibing light, sound and word in short bursts. But that’s not to mean we’re not reading. Just that the reader and reading itself has changed. Maybe the book too needs to change. And maybe the eBook is the first barefoot step down that dusty road.

A version of this article appeared in the newspaper Livemint

http://www.livemint.com/Leisure/vML66YepI5244f6aTs5pnM/Booking-the-Net.html

 

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